The Power of Building Good Habits

As leaders there's always one behavior or another we're trying to shape or change in others.  What about the chronic latecomer, the constant complainer and the time management challenged? We attempt to give constructive feedback, help them set goals or focus on teamwork and continuous improvement.  Sometimes it clicks; sometimes it doesn’t.

Do you know how much our habits actually impact our behavior choices (which is either what you’re trying to stop in others or grow in others), or how habits can by-pass our decision-making function?

The book, Habits: Why We Do What  We Do in Life and Work by Charles Guhigg provides insight into the human brain and how behavioral habits emerge and can be changed – both for individuals and organizationally.

Guhigg presents research suggesting that our more sophisticated, cognitive processes are actually used very little in determining how we behave, if the behavior has become a habit.  Rather than logically and rationally thinking something through, the basal ganglia, deep within the primitive brain, recognizes the decision as one that has been made many times before.  In order to minimize the demand on the cognitive brain function, the basal ganglia executes the decision with little or no thought - somewhat like automatic pilot.  

Brain researchers now agree that the basal ganglia is the decision maker for a myriad of little decisions we make all day long.  We decide to brush our teeth each morning, back out of the driveway, have breakfast, and exercise after work, all from this portion of the brain.   Ironically, the more we use the basal ganglia, the less mental activity is actually used. The brain does this purposefully to conserve energy. The goal for the brain is to create habits to ease the pressure on our cognitive thinking.  For example, when I arrive at work, I go get a cup of coffee; later on in the afternoon, I might go “grazing” for a snack because I need a boost of energy. Most times these activities are done without any conscious thought. The trigger for this behavior is deep in the automatic center of my brain.

According to Guhigg, the habit process begins with a “cue” that triggers our response.  Let's say we open the cupboard and see chocolate; there's our cue. Based on the "cue" we execute a routine or habitual response: "I deserve to eat some chocolate because it's been a hard day."  After we consume the chocolate we get the "reward" – a bit of sugar high that feels good. As this cue-routine-reward habit loop repeats itself, we form a habit.  

Now let's take something at work.  Let's say we hear the ding of an email coming in: the cue.  Our routine is to open the email whether it is important or not, receiving a "reward" when we catch an important one early.  Soon our time management has significantly deteriorated as we open every email coming in. The basal ganglia has taken over the automatic decision making, and we are no longer checking whether the email is important.  As soon as the cue happens, we respond automatically, in anticipation of a reward. The basal ganglia has executed the habit behavior even while the rest of the brain is asleep. Time Management Secret:  There are managers that suggest finding predetermined hours in your day when you’re allowed to look at email.  If it's not that hour, don’t check - get back to the project at hand!

Our brain works at the beginning of an activity to find the cue that provides a hint as to which pattern, or habit, to use.  Once that is located, the brain automatically responds. The “cue” is the trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.  The physical, emotional or mental routine follows. The result, or reward, helps the brain determine if the particular habit loop is worth remembering for the future.  As this pattern continues again and again, we actually develop a powerful craving for the anticipated reward. Guhigg states, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.  So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.”

To change a habit we have to create a new routine when the cue occurs that will overpower the previous behavior.  Let’s say we want to stop eating at McDonald’s. First we have to realize that the golden arches are actually a very carefully orchestrated cue that McDonald’s has designed to appeal to our habitual brain.  See the golden arches…hmmmmm…craving starts based on the cue, routine launches as I drive in, and I purchase some fries (the reward). Every time I repeat the pattern, the habit becomes stronger and stronger.  To break the habit, I have to see the golden arches as a cue that starts a craving and develop a different routine (response) that will still give me a reward. It’s important to remember that the craving, built as the reward occurs over and over, is what powers the habit loop.

As a leaders, we want to create certain habits in employees:  engagement, promptness, courage, continuous improvement. If we can develop a “cue,” teach a routine response, and administer a prompt reward that develops a craving to repeat the process, then a habit will be formed.  

What habits do you want to change as a leader?  Which ones do you want to add? How do we develop a cue-routine-reward habit loop?  

Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  • Use the power of technology:  there are a wealth of apps that I have personal used to transform the way I operate.  Want to measure calorie intake; check out MyFitnessPal, want to create a habit of weighing in to measure your succed; download the RENPHO app and buy the scale.  Looking for a new routine at the gym, click on FitBod. I also enjoy the Echo app which reminds me throughout the day to meditate/pray on something I have deemed important.

  • Use the power of a buddy:  Find someone to hold you accountable and more importantly to encourage you through the process.  “I want to get better at time management,” you say to a friend. Have that person nudge you if you’re in the danger zone of being late or celebrate with you if you’ve gotten out the door by 7:30am for the past two weeks

  • Use the power of a journal:  Don’t just give the job of accountability cop to your friends, you should be empowering yourself to journal, write, self-discipline your way to a new habit.  If you have to write it (which means reading, writing and perhaps saying it), you’re more likely to think twice of doing the bad habit or not doing the good one!

  • Use the power of process:  I am a firm believer in taking wishes, hopes, dreams, goals, exclamations out of our heads and actually building a win-win-win system.  Sometimes we’re relying too much on our brain (and heart and stomach…) to make our educated decision. We must use the tools at our hands, like scheduling your gym time early in the morning on your calendar a week ahead of time.  Find the process or processes that work best for you (including some of the above).

  • Use the power of empathy and compassion:  If you don’t run for 3 days or get off your calorie count for a day, that doesn’t mean you start at zero again.  Read that sentence again and apply it to your habit. It's a very important sentence. You don’t start at zero again.  Have empathy and compassion for yourself. I’m reminded of the line from Desiderata: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

Good luck and report back how you did!